The Preponderance of the Small

I suspect many Americans these days are coming to appreciate the custom that places the peak of campaigning season in the days on either side of Halloween. This year, the usual and interchangeable Demublican political hacks trick-or-treating for votes have been joined on the midnight streets of the American psyche by a medley of mad hatters and March hares from a Tea Party as strange as the one Alice attended in Wonderland, with the spectral forms of thousand-handed robosigners and zombie banks looming over all. It’s enough to keep mere vampires and mummies cowering in their crypts.

There’s something very reminiscent of Halloween, too, in the way that the frightening and the funny have gotten all tangled together in recent headlines. The infighting that’s broken out among the moneyed classes of late is an example worth noting. The cause of the quarrel is simple enough: in the next few years, somebody is going to end up holding several trillion dollars in mortgage-backed securities that aren’t worth the paper no one got around to printing them on. Nobody wants to be the chump left holding the bag, and as a result, a once-sacrosanct consensus that kept the investment industry and the media alike from pointing and giggling at each season’s crop of rank fiscal absurdities is coming hastily unglued.

Now of course the implosion of America’s mortgage debt is no laughing matter. Millions of people have lost their savings, their pensions, and their jobs as a result of it, and the aftermath of the brief era of wretched excess that ended so messily in 2008 will continue to burden families and blight futures for a decade or more, even if every possible effort goes into mitigating the consequences for the bulk of Americans – and every policy proposal made by either party so far leads in the opposite direction. Still, there’s plenty of gallows humor to be had watching fund managers and pundits announce that they’re shocked, shocked! to discover the widely publicized problems with the mortgage-backed “securities” they themselves helped market so eagerly a few short years ago.

Still, the echo of Halloween I hear most strongly in America just now is one that goes to the heart of the holiday. We pretend to be scared of ghosts and vampires and non-financial zombies, after all, because it’s a way of coping with the real terror all these things represent, which is of course our fear of our own mortality. In the same way, I’ve come to think, a great deal of the fearful predictions now surging throuigh the blogosphere and the mainstream media alike are attempts at coping with a more immediate and real fear, which – again, like death – is hidden behind a flurry of euphemisms. The one that comes to mind just at the moment is “quantitative easing.”

Many of my readers will have heard the calm and sanitized announcement this evening that the Federal Reserve Board will be buying $600 billion of US federal debt over the next seven months. I’m not sure how many of my readers have noted that this is the amount of debt the US government expects to issue over the next seven months. I’m even less sure how many of my readers have noticed that the Fed will be paying for these purchases by exercising its legal right to produce US dollars out of thin air. In other words, the United States is now printing money to pay its bills.

There may be an example somewhere in the long history of finance when a country has done this without facing catastrophic economic consequences in the fairly near term, but I don’t happen to know of one. Once a country starts covering its debts by way of the printing press, the collapse of its currency and its economy is pretty much a foregone conclusion. The exact way in which the consequences come due varies from case to case; the hyperinflation made famous by Weimar Germany and, more recently, Zimbabwe is only one of the options, and there are good reasons to think that this isn’t the most likely outcome just at the moment.

My own guess, for what it’s worth, is that we’re headed into a state of affairs that might as well be called hyperstagflation: the economy and money supply both contract, but the demand for dollars drops faster than the supply as holders of dollar-denominated assets scramble to cash in their dollars for anything that might preserve a fraction of their paper value. As in the stagflation of the Seventies, but much more drastically, prices go up while employment goes down until the economy shudders to a halt.

Now of course that’s far from the only possibility; we could see a straightforward deflationary collapse; we could also see increasingly reckless use of the printing press overwhelm the contraction of the money supply altogether and tip us into old-fashioned hyperinflation. What we won’t see for very much longer, though, is what currently passes for business as usual. I suspect a great many people in the financial community are aware of that – a supposition that gains some support from recent reports that corporate insiders in a range of industries are selling off their shares of their own companies’ stock at a record pace. I suspect the rest of us will become aware of it, too, as we approach the kind of economic, social, and (inevitably) political disruptions that people later describe in hushed tones to their grandchildren.

All these considerations may appear unrelated to green wizardry — the home gardens, handicrafts, conservation measures and back-to-basics measures that have been central to this blog’s trajectory for the last several months. The seeming mismatch between the immense societal crisis unfolding around us and the backyard projects for individuals and families I’ve been suggesting here has been the topic of a fair amount of comment in the peak oil blogosphere, of course, and the Green Wizardry project has been criticized more than once for failing to offer some grand response that will solve the problems facing industrial society – or, rather, will make a comforting claim to do so, and so provide a tune for the whistling past the graveyard that seems to occupy so much effort these days.

I’m glad to say that not all the critiques of the Green Wizardry project have been on this level. At the other end of the spectrum is a very thoughtful discussion by Erik Lindberg of Transition Milwaukee of the debate a few months back between myself and Rob Hopkins. The essay is titled The Long and the Short of It: Existential Comfort in the Age of Hopkins and Greer; it’s in five parts -- Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 – and offers the clearest perspective I’ve yet seen on the differences that Rob and I tried to air in our contending essays.

One of the things that makes this interesting to me is that Lindberg founds his discussion on literary theory. He’s refreshingly attentive to the role of narratives in shaping visions of the future, mine and Rob’s among them, and uses a division of narratives into four types – romance, tragedy, comedy, and farce – to make sense of the differences between the Transition narrative, on the one hand, and the narrative of which the Green Wizardry project is a practical expression, on the other. The Transition narrative, he suggests, is romance, defined as a story where a heroic protagonist (in this case, the Transition movement) sets out to achieve an improbable goal and does in fact achieve it. The narrative that gives Green Wizardry its context, in his view, is tragedy, defined as a story in which a heroic protagonist (in this case, modern industrial civilization) is brought low by the inevitable consequences of its own arrogant and mistaken decisions.

So far, so good. Still, the Green Wizardry project itself doesn’t offer a tragic narrative. In a very real sense, it’s an effort to find a working alternative to the central dynamic of tragedy, the doomed attempt of the tragic hero to overcome the fate his own hubris has brought down on his head. Perhaps the one real misstep in Lindberg’s critique is that he managed to miss this, though it’s explained in so many words in a passage he quoted from The Ecotechnic Future, the book of mine he used to ground his discussion. (When an analysis of a text has to rest the full weight of its argument on a single exclamation point, as Lindberg’s does, that’s normally a sign that something has gone amiss.)

The narrative at the core of the Green Wizardry project, in fact, is a comic narrative. Put that baldly, the notion may seem horribly out of place. Still, the same logic that leads us to festoon our houses every October with terrors in which we don’t believe, in order to help ourselves come to terms with a terror in which we all unavoidably believe, is at work here as well. Comedy is the natural human response to tragedy. It’s for this reason that Shakespeare put comic turns cheek by jowl with the starkest of his tragic scenes – the gatekeeper’s soliloquy right after Duncan’s murder in Macbeth, the Fool’s ingenious nonsense punctuating the agony of King Lear. It’s for the same reason that in classical times, each trilogy of ancient Greek tragedies was finished up with a satire, and Japanese Noh plays to this day are divided by comic interludes.

To understand this, it’s useful to pay attention to the nature of the protagonists of the four kinds of narrative Lindberg discusses. The heroes of tragedy are always exceptional persons in exceptional situations. So are the heroes of romance – Luke Skywalker may look like just another Tatooine farm boy, but there’s an old man with a light saber in his future, and the Force is with him. So, on the other end of the scale, are the protagonists of farce, who make fun of our pretensions by being exceptionally foolish, greedy, lustful, or what have you.

Comic heroes are the exception precisely because they aren’t exceptional, and neither are the situations in which they find themselves. The protagonist of Comedy is Everyman or Everywoman, and the world he or she must confront is the same one we encounter in our own lives. This is why the great tragedies and romances always contain just enough comedy to draw the spectators in and undercut the distance they try to put between themselves and the tragic or romantic hero, and it’s also why the truly great comedies always dance on the edge of tragedy, romance, or both at once, pushing their protagonists right up to the limits of the ordinary but never quite across it.

In a gentler age, we might have the luxury of understanding the impact of history’s arc on our lives in the context of comedy pure and simple. Here in America, at least, that option has been foreclosed – or if it remains open, it’s only by way of the wry sort of comedy Cervantes made famous in Don Quixote, in which a very ordinary person becomes convinced he’s a hero out of romance, goes forth to seek some grandiose destiny, and runs headlong into one disaster after another until enough of the stuffing is pounded out of him that he heads home to La Mancha. Still, at least one other kind of comedy is open to us, and it’s the kind I’ve sketched out above, the kind that provides a counterpoint and some degree of relief to a larger tragedy.

The core plot of tragedy, again, is that an extraordinary person attempts the impossible and is destroyed. The core plot of comedy, by contrast, is that a completely ordinary person attempts some equally ordinary task and, despite all the obstacles the author can come up with, succeeds in winning through to some modest but real achievement. When it stands on its own, comedy gets its effect by reminding us that, no matter how ordinary we are, and how embarrassing the tangles we create for ourselves, we can reasonably hope to stumble our way through it all and achieve something worthwhile. When it functions as a counterpoint for tragedy, this same effect is even more powerful; as the tragic hero in all his magnificence crashes and burns, the comic counterpoint scrambles out of the way of the flaming wreckage and finds afterward that, like Candide, he can at least tend his garden.

Yes, I’m suggesting that this is basically the best we can hope for at this point in the turning of history’s wheel. If the promising beginnings of the 1970s had been followed up in the decades that followed, we might have had a reasonable shot at a narrative of romance; as the Hirsch Report pointed out, getting through peak petroleum production without massive economic trauma can be done if you get to work on it twenty years in advance of the peak. We didn’t, and those possibilities are now water (however oil-stained) under the bridge at this point. The world’s industrial nations chose, in effect, to embrace the role of the tragic hero instead, and they’ve worked at it with gusto; the current US administration’s decision to put America’s economic collapse on the fast track by paying its bills via the printing press is a grand bit of tragic action, the sort of deliberate flouting of destiny that makes hubris its own nemesis.

Those who want to play the role of tragic hero on a smaller scale, in turn, can certainly do so; embracing some romantic fantasy of salvation or other, with a heroic disregard for the hard constraints closing in on us here and now, is one very promising option. Still, this role has practical disadvantages, starting with the aforementioned habit of crashing and burning. It’s for that reason that I’ve suggested a more prosaic alternative, which is to set out to do the small things that individuals in a disintegrating society can actually accomplish to better their own lives, and those of their families and communities, while simultaneously handing down useful gifts to the future. That’s the central theme of the Green Wizardry project, though of course there are many other ways to pursue the same kind of goal.

It’s not accidental, I think, that the anonymous Chinese sages who assembled the I Ching – and who had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the rise and fall of empires – made room for this strategy among the patterns of change in that ancient text:

Hsiao Kuo, the Preponderance of the Small.
Success. Perseverance furthers.
Small things may be done; great things should not be done.
The flying bird brings the message:
It is not well to strive upward, it is well to remain below.
Great good fortune.

In this season, when the flying birds are headed southward with messages of the coming winter, this may be good advice to follow. In next week’s post, we’ll get back to the nitty gritty of following it, with some pointers on the dance of genetic information that’s set in motion by saving seeds.